How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!

From Macbeth (4.1.47-60):

MACBETH
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
ALL [WITCHES]
A deed without a name.
MACBETH
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

And some contextualizing remarks from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Gary Wills (pg63-65).

When Macbeth sets out consciously to “know, by the worst means, the worst” from the witches (3.4.133-34), he is exposing himself to the same laws that made Sir Edward Kelley (in real life) and the Duchess of Gloucester (in Shakespeare’s play) guilty of necromancy—i.e., of witchcraft. He appeals to the witches in the name of their art, of their dark knowledge, no matter what its source (4.1.50-51):

I conjure you, by that which you profess,
How e’er you come to know it, answer me.


He has addressed them in terms of their office:

How now you secret, black, and midnight hags.


This is the way Ovid’s Medea begins to conjure Night: “Oh, Night,
you secret-keeper!”

Nox, ait, arcanis fidissima . . .

This is not an accidental resemblance. The model for Macbeth’s conjuring speech is the classical speech of Medea best known to Shakespeare in Ovid’s and in Seneca’s versions of it. It has long been recognized that Shakespeare based Prospero’s description of his magic on Ovid’s Medea; but Macbeth’s speech is just as close to that model.

Macbeth asks for knowledge on the basis of witches’ power to wrest, from an unwilling nature, compelled submission. To emphasize this he lists the classical adynata (feats beyond natural causation) that make up the canonical list of witches’ boasts. Medea, like other classical witches, says she can draw down the moon, move crops around, invert the seasons, reverse river currents, turn everything topsyturvy. Here is Macbeth’s use of that classical witch-catalogue (4.1.52-59):

[see quoted passage at top]

This kind of speech, often imitated from the classical sources, is almost always put into the mouth of a witch or the queen of witches. Ben Jonson [in The Masque of Queens], for instance, has Hecate say:

When we have set the elements at wars,
Made midnight see the sun, and day the stars;
When the winged lightning in its course hath stay’d,
And swiftest rivers have run back, afraid
To see the corn remove, the graves to range
While places alter and the seas do change;
When the pale moon, at the first voice, down fell
Poison’d, and durst not stay the second spell


Although Macbeth’s adynata, like Jonson’s, are classical, there is one Christian touch in Shakespeare that makes its “modern” witchcraft more explicit. Macbeth not only says he will set the winds at war—a typical feature of witch-boasting—but that he will make them war against the churches. That is an extra touch of malice that Doctor Faustus shares with Macbeth. Faustus says that he will “make my spirit pull his churches down” (Az.3.98).

And the Golding translation (what Shakespeare would have known) of the passage in Ovid (7.190-210ish):

…… O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.

Lucan’s Erichtho may also be relevant, though the Pharsalia doesn’t seem to have been translated in full until over a decade after the play.

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